Creating Complicated Characters: Lessons from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

No one does character complexity better than Shakespeare himself, so if you can get yourself past the iambic pentameter and the nitty-gritty English 101 details, we can learn a lot from his works. Though it is one of his lesser-known plays, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is no exception.

Image Credit: WikipediaCleopatra, by John William Waterhouse, 1888.

In reading this play, I’ve noticed three tricks (there are many more, but let’s not go overboard) that we can take from Antony and Cleopatra that will help us create more complicated characters.

  1. Give your character multiple dimensions;
  2. Show your character struggling between (at least) two things they want; and
  3. Give your character flaws.

Right off the bat, we see lesson number one, giving a character multiple dimensions, in Act I Scene I of the play as Antony’s soldiers remark on what they see as his foolish behavior and obsession with Cleopatra, while at the same time marveling over his legendary military skill.

“[H]is captain’s heart/Which in the scuffles of great fights have burst/The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,/And is become the bellows and the fan/To cool a gipsy’s lust.”¹

Essentially, they are lamenting that their general, a great military hero, has become a lovesick fool. As readers (or viewers, if you’re watching the play), we may have a hard time believing that Antony is such a great military leader. In the first scene, we see him send away messengers from Octavius Caesar, his fellow triumvir, and he loudly professes his love for Cleopatra to fulfill her desire for theatrics. But then, we quickly understand just what kind of leader he is when we see him return to Rome. Savvy and politically-minded, he marries Caesar’s sister Octavia despite his affair with Cleopatra, and he strategizes with Caesar and Lepidus against their rival, Pompey. As we see him in these two different dimensions, we are forced to reconcile these seemingly contradictory faces. This creates depth of character.

Image Credit: Wikipedia. The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1884.

Lesson two might be seen reflected in lesson one — showing a character struggle between her different goals. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony has multiple goals. He wants to be seen as a great hero and retain his third of the Roman empire, but he also wants to continue his affair with Cleopatra. Having more than one goal isn’t technically a problem — in fact, it’s necessary if you don’t want your character to come across as simple and narrow-minded. But life gets more complicated for a character when his goals don’t all align. For example, Antony cannot be both a good lover to Cleopatra and a good military leader because she distracts him from his military responsibilities, and their affair ruins his marriage to Caesar’s sister, which in turn ruins his relationship with Caesar. Antony simply can’t have both.

Conflicting goals lead to inner conflict, which can essentially be defined as the struggle a character undergoes in reconciling two or more desires. Do you find yourself trying to justify a character’s actions because they go against a particular goal she has? Step back and look to see if she has another underlying goal, and allow her to struggle with them. Or, taking another perspective, maybe your character is struggling to hold to a particular value, but finds herself moving in a direction that takes her away from that value. Such was the situation for Antony, whose Roman creed led him to value his honor very highly. And yet, his affair with Cleopatra was dishonorable. It might be easy for a viewer of the play to say that Antony should break things off with Cleopatra, and everything would be good again. But that’s easier said than done, because such action would go against one of his core desires.

Image Credit: Wikipedia. Superman as depicted in “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes,” by Alex Ross, 2005.

Finally, according to lesson three, characters must have flaws to have depth. As humans, we relate to flaws, not perfection. None of us are perfect, so a character that never makes a mistake becomes a “Mary Sue,” which can be difficult to appreciate. I had a teacher once who postulated that Superman didn’t become an interesting character until kryptonite was introduced because no one could relate to a super-human with no weaknesses whatsoever. (Some people may disagree — there is an entire genre dedicated to Mary Sue characters [Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys] that is successful in its own field, so take lesson three for what it’s worth.)

Antony’s fatal flaw, as I interpret the play, was his love for Cleopatra. (Note that the fatal flaw may be one of the conflicting goals discussed in lesson two.) At one point in the play, Antony and Cleopatra have formed a political alliance and go to battle at sea with Caesar. At first, the campaign seems to be going in their favor, but then Cleopatra turns tail, and Antony, despite all his military prowess, goes after her. The fight goes downhill from there, and they lose. Scarus, one of Antony’s friends, laments,

“I never saw an action of such shame;/Experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before/Did violate so itself.”²

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672.

Later, when Antony rails against Cleopatra for retreating, she tells him that she didn’t think he would follow her. He exclaims,

“Egypt, thou knew’st too well/My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings,/And thou shouldst [tow] me after. O’er my spirit/[Thy] full supremacy thou knew’st, and that/Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods/Command me.”³

In the end, a story may come down to the question of which character traits are more overpowering — a weakness, or a strength. Antony committed suicide at the end of the play to preserve his Roman honor, but if his military strength and sense of honor had overcome his weakness for Cleopatra, then he would have probably lived to see Act V.

Your characters will make different choices than Antony did, but as readers, we can still learn from Shakespeare’s development of his title characters. If you think about how these lessons could apply to your story, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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  1. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Edited by Herschel Baker, et al. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997) 1.1.6–10. References are to act, scene, and line.
  2. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Edited by Herschel Baker, et al. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997) 3.10.21–23. References are to act, scene, and line.
  3. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Edited by Herschel Baker, et al. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997) 3.11.57-62. References are to act, scene, and line.

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